Wednesday 17 April 2024

A Second Chance at Life

After the devastating loss of his father, Wiremu ran away to the streets of Auckland, where he only just survived. With support from Auckland City Mission – Te Tāpui Atawhai, Wiremu has had a second chance at life and been working hard to regain his health. 

Wiremu grew up in a world of violence and addiction: “My mom and dad were in the gang life. My dad used to beat me up. They were always drinking, partying, then there’d be big rumbles. The next day we’d get up and the whole house was trashed, people sleeping on the floor, sleeping outside, sleeping in the kitchen. And there was never kai for us kids.” 

“I love my dad, love my mom, but I hated the way we were getting treated. They were spending their money on drugs and alcohol and leaving me to look after the kids, because I was the oldest.” 

Surrounded by gangs and crime, Wiremu dropped out of high school and ran away from home. By his late teens, he was in prison for dealing drugs. 

He hated the life: “So once I got out, I ended up moving in with a friend and he got me a job washing car windows at his work.” 

Around this time, Wiremu’s estranged father reached out to him to reconnect. “He told me to come over for dinner one night and have the son and father talk. It was supposed to be a good night for me and him.”  

But their planned reconciliation turned to tragedy. 

“I went over and met his new girlfriend. We were at the table waiting for my dad to get home, when the cops came over. All I could see is red and blue lights outside. I heard his girlfriend screaming at the door. My dad had passed away. He was walking home from work and there was a hit and run accident. The driver was intoxicated and driving too fast.” 

Wiremu was devastated by the loss of his father. 

“I took a bad turn. I went back to my friend’s place where I was boarding. I said, ‘I’m gone, bro. I’m out of here. I can’t live around here.’ Because everywhere I go, I would see my dad in those places.” 

He found himself sleeping on the street that night. One night turned into one week and Wiremu spent the next 17 years sleeping rough.  

Surviving on the streets was a daily struggle. The hardest thing for Wiremu was dealing with the abuse from people passing by. 

“I never want to go back to that sort of life again. I was begging for money every day. People throw things at you. We had eggs thrown at us. Getting things taken from you. I’ve been robbed I don’t know how many times.” 

On one occasion, Wiremu had collapsed and was lying on the ground when he was attacked: “This guy walked past and started kicking me and going ‘you f***ing homeless bastard!’” 

“When you want to shower, you go up to the creeks or the beach. We would wash our clothes at the beach. I know the water’s not clean, but it was better than nothing.” 

It was when he was living on the street that Wiremu first met Mission keyworker Linda Murphy.  Our outreach keyworkers are out on the streets of Auckland every day, connecting with people sleeping rough and offering support and practical care.  This can include food and clothing, medical attention or help to find housing. 

“Linda used to come down and support me and try and get my ass off the street. She’d see me in some bad states. She said ‘you’re going to get sick out here’. And she was right.” 

For ten years, Wiremu was sniffing glue to escape from the reality of his life on the street. 

“The glue took over my life, but it was killing me. After four or five years, I started getting really sick because of all the glue sniffing. My body wasn’t handling it. I ended up in hospital seven or eight times.”  

Each time, the doctors told him to stop using the glue, but as soon as he was back on the streets, Wiremu would start again.   

The Mission team found him an apartment, but within a week of moving in, Wiremu had returned to his life on the streets. “I took my blanket and just sat back out on the street. I was still in that street mode – I’d lived half of my life out there. I’d spent more time living on the street than in a house. I wasn’t used to being in a quiet house on my own. I didn’t know how.” 

His health continued to deteriorate out on the street. He was putting on weight because of the glue and his unhealthy diet on the street. Eventually he collapsed and was hospitalised for several months. 

“My heart stopped. I was completely unresponsive. I couldn’t stand. I couldn’t pick up my hand. I couldn’t even open my eyes. I had so much glue in my body. When I got out, the doctor had a hard talk to me and said, ‘Wiremu, next time you’re coming back in a body bag. You’re lucky that we saved your life. You’re not going to survive again.’” 

That’s when he finally stopped sniffing glue.   

Despite his age, it was arranged for Wiremu to move into a rest home because of his extreme health needs. It was the only place he could get the long-term, round-the-clock care he desperately needed to stay alive. 

“To start off with, I didn’t like being at an old people’s home – I’m only young. But I was really sick. It helped me because I went from unhealthy to healthy.” 

Wiremu spent six years living at the rest home and during that time, he started to eat well and exercise regularly, with personal support from BBM’s Dave Letele. “I lost so much weight and I felt really good.” He even completed Round the Bays three times! 

When Wiremu was ready to move on from the rest home, Linda helped him secure an apartment at HomeGround.   

“I’m going to be here for a while because I love it! I’m surrounded by everything that I need, like the pharmacy downstairs. If I’m hungry, I can go down for breakfast. WINZ is right here.” 

He gets weekly support from one of the Mission’s occupational therapists to live well independently, including help with meal planning. 

And most importantly, Wiremu can get the health care that he needs from the Mission’s Calder Health Centre to survive with his complex, chronic health conditions. 

“I’m never going to fully recover from that damage that I did to my kidneys. I’ve still got to live with the heart problems. I’ve got a long way to go, but I’m on the road to recovery.” 

As well as getting treatment from the doctors and nurses at Calder, he’s working with the health coach at Calder to get regular exercise and improve his lifestyle.  

Wiremu is actively involved in the community at HomeGround – attending the weekly tenant’s hui and representing the tenants on the Kōmiti Whānau (the Mission client’s committee). He’s a talented artist and his painting and drawings adorn the rooftop lounge for HomeGround tenants, as well as his own apartment. 

“I love doing Māori designs, and I love doing cartoon drawings I make my own little stories.He’s even planning to turn his life story into a book for young people, to help them understand the reality of homelessness. 

Wiremu is embracing all the learning opportunities at HomeGround, attending weekly classes to improve his literacy and his computer skills, and taking part in a cooking and nutrition course offered to tenants. 

And he has skills he’d like to share with others in the community: “I did a Māori arts and crafts course at Papakura Marae when I was a teen, and I would love to help people to learn how to weave [flax].” 

Today, Wiremu and Linda are still good friends and he credits her support with saving his life: 

“I’m lucky to be alive today, to be honest. Truly, I got off the street with the help of Linda. Linda’s always been there for me from the time I was living on the streets till now. And she’s been there 100% all the way through my toughest times.”